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Catching up with Ben Flajnik



I met Ben around 2012, when he was the star of The Bachelor, and a principal in Envolve Winery, along with his old friends, Mikey Benziger and Danny Fay. Ben left the winery in 2014, although he’s still a silent partner. We met at Blue Bottle Coffee, a coder-heavy hangout on Mint Plaza in San Francisco, where Ben, 33, told me about his post-Bachelor, post-Envolve life.

BF: I have a few projects. I stayed in beverage. Started a local Fernet project, Fernet Francisco. Fernet is a part of the digestif family: before and after cordials, a distilled spirit. Fernet Branca is our main competitor. There’s about 12-15 Fernets on the planet. Branca claims the exclusive right to the word Fernet, but there’s other Fernet companies that produce. So we’re in a bit of a tiff with Branca. We’re working that out. We happen to be the third domestically-produced Fernet, and the only one out of California. My partners and I cut our teeth on Branca. Everybody did!

SH: Digestifs are big now. Huge. The category is growing like crazy.

Why? I think the resurgence of botanicals is on the rise. Seems to me, at least the crew I run with, is no one drinks vodka anymore. When they’re drinking something, they want flavors; they want to taste the Earth, as opposed to something very clean.


What is your Fernet made with? We have two base ethanols. One is made from grapes, a brandy, and we use an organic, non-GMO grain-based ethanol. So we’ll take the brandies and macerate “X” amount of herbs in them.

Is the herb mixture a secret? Well, I can disclose some of them, but not all. The main ones are rhubarb, bay leaf, chamomile, spearmint, peppermint and orange peel.

Where do you get your products? We source the herbs from Monterey. We try to source everything as local as possible. The goal is to create a product using botanicals that are native, that thrive in the state of California. And our ethanols are local too.

Where is the distillery? Out of Falcon Spirits, a small distillery in Richmond [California]. Our Master Distiller is Farid Dorishan, a brilliant man. Max Rudsten, my partner, and I interviewed a half-dozen master distillers before starting this project. I flew to some of the world’s most renowned distilleries and figured out process design and what it took to make Fernet. So coupled with Farid’s brilliance, we sat down and did blending sessions, the same way I blended when I made wine.

Was there financing? We actually raised $100,000 in really small rounds from friends, just buddies. We have 22 investors. They were like, “Let’s see if you guys can pull it off.”

How do you drink Fernet Francisco? Is it mixable? Everybody takes it as a shot, right? We are the only Fernet on the planet classed as a bitters, not a liqueuer, due to our lack of sugar. So we mix really well in cocktail programs. But we’re also a neat sipper, like bourbon or scotch.

How’s it selling? We started in early April [2015]. At first, Max and I pounded the pavement; we had 100 accounts in the first month. Then we got a distributor. Production is currently at 800 cases, in the first six months. Retail is about $40-$44.

Where is it sold? We just cracked 300 accounts statewide. All the Whole Foods, all the BevMos NorCal. And on-premise, we’re all over the place. It’s funny, even with the Bachelor and the growth we had at Envolve, I’ve never seen trajectory like this before. Fernet’s on another planet. We just opened up New York, D.C., Texas, Illinois.

Why is it so successful? We have a long way to go, don’t get me wrong. But here’s why I think it’s been so successful so far: Because Max and I recognized a niche product, a niche market that wasn’t being fulfilled. Branca is the only option, but we got tired of drinking it. So we went out and created an artisanal, small-batch Fernet. And there are a lot of Fernet drinkers out there.


Do you miss winemaking? I do. I miss wine. I miss the people in wine. I miss driving up to Sonoma. [Ben lives in San Francisco.] It was a nice drive, the only time of day I was able to call my friends and catch up and collect my thoughts. It was a nice cycle. [He usually biked up.] What we quickly learned, though, is that there’s no money in wine. You have to be very well funded, and we weren’t. I got a pH.D. in the wine business through Envolve, and I’ve applied all that to Fernet Francisco.

What is your day-to-day role? It’s not a fulltime job yet. Max and I probably spend 10 hours a week.

Where do you see it in five years? I’d be stoked if markets outside California were doing 30 to 50 cases a month. I’d like to see us get to about 5 percent market share of Fernet Branca in the U.S.

Fernet isn’t the only new thing you’re doing. Right. We have a live wine webcam from Sonoma,, and also On the first, we’re trying to highlight wineries, the window in the world of wine. Someone’s sitting in their basement in the middle of winter in Ohio, longing to be in wine country, they can go. On livefromsonoma, we’re live on the Sonoma square. We already have 25,000-35,000 unique views a month, with zero advertising. People are interested in what’s going on, so we’re trying to extend that [through] into the wineries, the vineyards, the crushpads.

Are they for profit? Right now it’s for fun. Later on, we’ll monetize through advertising. There’s a minimal fee that the winery or vineyard incurs. We’re also talking with Jackson Family and Jean-Charles Boisset for Fernet and are side gigs for me. Ultimately, it would be nice to have them be fulltime gigs, but my primary business right now is The Gentleman []. We plan great dates for people, especially guys. We’re like the Uber on-demand date service.

Sort of a date concierge. Exactly. You go online, fill out a simple survey so we know who you are. So it’s like, Okay, you’re Steve Heimoff, these are the kinds of cuisines you’re into, you like Iron Butterfly…

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, baby! We plan awesome dates for you. We’re starting in Los Angeles and San Francisco. My co-founder and C.T.O., Alex Sharp, is down there. I’m the specialist in San Francisco, for now. So, hey Steve, this restaurant is the latest and greatest, we’ve been able to reserve a table for our gentleman members. And it only costs you twelve bucks [for the booking]. Or you can be a monthly subscriber for $39.

Is it up and running? The beta release is today, as we speak. It’s a website now, will be an app.

How did The Bachelor experience inform your future career plans? Good question. While I was going through it, I thought wine was going to be part of my life forever. And it’s just a tough business. I couldn’t keep doing it forever, scraping by, trying to make it work. Passion is one thing; paying the bills here in San Francisco is another. I was always involved in some kind of technology project, and so it’s nice to be back in both, in tech and in beverage. The Bachelor opened a lot of doors and awesome contacts and friendships that are readily available for when we launch The Gentleman and Fernet needs to go into a new market, or whatever it is.

Do you still drink wine? OMG, do I ever. I drink more wine than I ever did.

Like what? Beaujolais. I drink a boatload of Gamay Noir. Steph [his girlfriend] and I drink more European than before; we have acid-driven palates. A lot of Burgundy—the stuff we can afford! I still drink a lot of domestic Pinot: Kosta-Browne, Baxter up in Anderson Valley.

Any final thoughts? Everything’s good! Just plugging away. It’s been an interesting year-and-a-half after leaving the winery and showbiz and all that stuff and trying to find my feet again. I’ve landed on these three projects that I’m very proud of, and I think they all have legs.

Thank you Ben!


  1. Steve, I like this format…do some more interviews. The one-on-one perspective is great (yes, I checked the archives as well).

  2. I concur, more interviews to update/supplement your book:

    “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff”

    Carry on the legacy of Bob Benson’s seminal book.

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